Aurora’s divisive inside politics spills out of city hall

Aurora City Council member Françoise Bergan appears on Jeff Fard’s livestream talk show Dec. 16, 2020 to talk about her role as the city’s mayor pro tem.

AURORA | In previous years, something as mundane as Aurora’s Mayor Pro Tem appointment wouldn’t make much of a splash. 

Those days are long gone. 

Intra-council squabbling has persisted 10 days after a majority of lawmakers elected conservative Councilmember Françoise Bergan as the next Mayor Pro Tem. What’s often considered inside baseball has become a public show on social media and a local talk show.

Controversy of the normally symbolic mayor pro tem assignment has caught Bergan and Auroran council-watchers off guard. 

“It was a big surprise to many,” Bergan said while laughing Wednesday on Denver activist Jeff Fard’s live-streamed talk show. “It was a surprise to me!” 

Bergan, who represents south Aurora’s Ward VI, became Mayor Pro Tem Dec. 7 after liberals and moderates — who control the city council — split their votes between two candidates. Some even abstained from voting for either Bergan or her more moderate opponent in the running, Councilmember Angela Lawson. 

That’s confused some Aurora constituents, Councilmember Juan Marcano told the Sentinel. People are asking him: “How the hell did Françoise Bergan become Mayor Pro Tem?” 

In the new role, Bergan will cut ribbons for Mayor Mike Coffman, a former Republican Congressman, and steer meetings when he’s absent. Bergan replaces Councilmember Nicole Johnston, who served as Pro Tem for a year. The role is a largely symbolic nod to someone who’s achieved some level of seniority and collegiality. Making council committee assignments is the only official duty that curries any sort of controversy, and usually interest. 

There’s certainly controversy around that duty this year.

Some members of city council say they’re concerned because Bergan now has some control over the legislative process as city lawmakers take up increasingly ambitious business. As mayor pro tem, Bergan assigned councilmembers to slots among the city’s 10 policy committees this week. 

Among other things, committees are usually the first destination for a bill in the city’s lawmaking process. Most bills or proposals are introduced first to a committee, although that’s not required. Measures are usually reviewed and passed along to the full council with some kind of recommendation or amendment. 

City Council rules also allow members to bypass council committees and take a piece of local legislation straight to a floor vote. That includes the Public Safety, Courts and Civil Service Committee, where lawmakers have introduced a slew of recent police reforms, including a ban on no-knock warrants. 

Documents obtained by The Sentinel Thursday show that Bergan installed three conservative lawmakers on the Public Safety committee: Dave Gruber, Marsha Berzins and Curtis Gardner. Gardner served on the committee this year. 

The move prompted criticism from liberal and moderate council members that the new panel will work to push back against expected police reforms. Council members Gruber and Berzins have consistently made pro-police comments from the dais for months as controversy raged in Aurora over the death of Elijah McClain and other police controversies.

Some city council members say Bergan’s unexpected appointment as Mayor Pro Tem blossomed from tension and poor communication between progressives and centrists on the city council which, together, control a majority of the council’s 11 votes. 

Three members in the further left flank supported Councilmember Crystal Murillo for the role, while the other three supported Lawson. 

Murillo was knocked out of the running first during the rounds of voting. Then, when the contest came down to Lawson and Bergan, councilmembers Juan Marcano, Alison Coombs and Crystal Murillo abstained from voting. At that point, Bergan had the plurality of votes. The next vote, traditionally a courtesy for the person garnering the most votes, Bergan, was unanimous, 8-0, with Marcano, Coombs and Murillo abstaining a second time.

The abstainers told The Sentinel that they couldn’t support Lawson after months of unreturned texts and phone calls. Lawson said communication was a problem on their end. 

“There is, frankly, a lack of trust there as a result of that,” Coombs said. 

Marcano later said he had hoped at the time that the voting abstentions would have led to a different result.

After a fierce debate last month, Lawson had also broken with liberals in a final vote to raise the city’s minimum wage. The self-described “independent thinker” joined conservatives to kill the divisive plan, which would have raised the city’s bottom wage to $12.60 per hour in 2021 and ultimately $17 an hour in 2025. 

Coombs, Murillo and Marcano said that’s not why they refused to vote for Lawson. But Johnston, the former Mayor Pro Tem and a more moderate liberal, isn’t so sure. 

“I’m speculating, but I think it was being upset about the minimum wage vote,” she said. 

Lawson said she’s disappointed with the result, but she doesn’t hold “ill feelings” toward anyone. And everyone but the conservatives are mystified why their preferred candidates didn’t garner enough support. They’ll now have to live with Bergan’s committee assignments. 

Marcano told the Sentinel committees aren’t the end-all-be-all of Aurora’s lawmaking process, but he acknowledged that concerns about Bergan’s new power “came to fruition.”

Beyond city hall, Aurorans took notice of Bergan’s appointment and blamed select members for the turn of events. 

The votes especially landed Johnston in the crosshairs of Democratic activists and officials. Johnston’s symbolic vote for Bergan outraged Kristin Mallory Westerberg, Chairwoman of the Arapahoe County Democrats, who balked about Johnston and centrists refusing to appoint Murillo, a Latina, to the figurehead role.  

“The centrists voted for a racist white lady… instead of a progressive, young, Latina leader, @Murillo4Aurora,” she tweeted. 

She tagged several progressive organizations and said “Now what are WE going to do about it?” 

Mallory Westerberg told the Sentinel she stood by the tweet Thursday.

“Françoise has a complicated voting history, and she has never once strayed from what I would call a more conservative/Republican ideology,” she said. “And when you look at Aurora as a whole, it’s a Democratic city. So the values of the Mayor Pro Tem will not line up with what voters have said, emphatically, hands down, what they wanted in leadership.”

She added that the blame for Bergan’s appointment is spread equally among the six lawmakers who couldn’t agree on a candidate. 

“At the end of the day, there are six people that could have prevented this but couldn’t find a compromise,” she said. 

After the debacle and no shortage of insults, Bergan reached out to Fard and asked to come on his show. 

Fard’s show is a magnetic center of Black activists and progressive politics in Denver and Aurora. Fard was also a supporter of Omar Montgomery’s 2019 bid for Mayor and has hosted other Aurora officials. 

During the hour-long exchange, Bergan and Fard talked about Aurora’s minimum wage ordinance, tax breaks for big developments and the death of Elijah McClain. Bergan became emotional when Fard asked how it feels to be called racist. 

“I hope you could afford me the opportunity to know my heart,” Bergan said, fighting back tears. 

Fard also asked Bergan how, exactly, she had become Mayor Pro Tem. 

She walked watchers through the city council’s political divisions and the hectic voting process. “Honestly, I don’t even know if any of us knew what was going on,” Bergan said. “But it was interesting.”